Hidden Stories

A couple of years ago, shortly after I had my last insane bout of back pain, my partners and I got our first grant. When I went in the office to meet the coordinator, Amy Skinner, I began to tell her about a Ted talk I’d recently seen that was related to the film we were working on about Dr. Sarno. Elliot Crane, a pain specialist, told the story of his young patient whom he described as a hard working 16-year-old girl who danced at such a high level that it seemed as if dance would probably be her career. She fell during rehearsal one day and sprained her wrist. Instead of healing as one might expect, it began to hurt worse over time and it became so sensitive to the touch that it felt like it was being hit with a blowtorch. He went on to describe the way in which the signals from the brain go wrong, causing the pain.

He starts his talk with the fact that he’s a pediatrician and an anesthesiologist, and quips, “I put kids to sleep for a living”. Going on to state that for people like this patient, pain was a disease in and of itself, in which the brain and body signals malfunction. However, he didn’t offer any clues as to “why” this might happen. Admitting that the treatment methods are quite crude, he described using a mix of pain killers, nerve blocks, uncomfortable physical therapy, as well as therapy to deal with the depression and angst that always accompany the pain. Unfortunately, he simply couldn’t see around the corner to realize that emotional issues might have been a causal factor as well.

Dr. Sarno’s treatment method recognizes this connection explicitly. After many years of treating patients, he recognized that pain is often connected to emotional issues, and counseled that learning this fact is the key to beginning the healing process. As medicine generally fails to recognize this connection, he compared it to the black plague, arguing that if people had simply known to wash their hands at the time of the plague they would have easily wiped it out. The same is true of pain: if we simply recognize that the repression of our emotions is a major causal factor in pain syndromes, we could begin to reverse the process. In the 70’s, Dr. Sarno¬†warned that if we failed to see this connection, we would likely see an epidemic of pain syndromes. This epidemic is the problem that Dr. Crane, and the National Institute of Health, now describe. The cost of chronic pain has tripled between 2001 and 2012, and now dwarfs the cost of almost all other health issues combined.

Dr. Sarno describes his patients as the kind of people who strive to be perfect and good. These patients have an unconscious need to take take care of, and please, other people. He is as much an artist as a scientist. He reads Sherlock Holmes before bed, and enjoys searching for hidden clues. Looking at stories of pain through his perspective, in which the repression of our emotions affect our health, subtle clues often jump out of the narrative.

A sixteen-year-old girl who dances at a professional level likely puts herself under extreme pressure. While she clearly enjoys dancing, it’s likely that she also wants to live up the goals and aspirations of others. Perhaps she is unconsciously enraged that she has to dance every Saturday afternoon rather than hang out with friends at the mall. She might be angry and not even know it. This can cause enormous amounts of unconscious stress. However, simply understanding this connection can put a patient on the pathway toward healing. Conversely, ignoring it can be dangerous, because, while the physical intervention might alleviate the pain short-term, this kind of unconscious stress will continue to wreak havoc on the body. This is not to say that the young woman had to stop dancing. However, possible unconscious pressure would have been the first place to start looking for answers.

The reason I was telling Amy about this story was because I found it so interesting that doctors can accept that pain might cause emotional problems, but not vice versa. She stopped me halfway through my discussion and pulled out a picture of a black and blue foot. It was the size of a football and it was angry looking. She told me it was her foot, and related her story of pain (it’s a doozy, and you can watch it below). Suffice it to say, she went through 4 years of painful and invasive treatments; over those many years, no one put a hand on her knee and asked her what was going on in her life. Eventually, after she hit bottom, she healed herself.

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